Joseph wore a coat of many colors, but his mother Rachel shouldn’t have done the same. That’s according to London’s Rabbi Eliyahu Falk, who sent out a letter to ultra-Orthodox congregants likening women’s wearing of bright colors to downing non-kosher food.
“It is truly loathsome to dress in such an inadequate manner… no less forbidden than … eating Treife food or mixed swimming,” he wrote, as part of modesty instructions delivered ahead of Rosh Hashanah to thousands of Haredi families in the British capital’s Stamford Hill neighborhood. Located in north London, the area contains one of the highest concentrations of ultra-Orthodox in all of Europe.
The communication was printed in the “Heimishe Newsheet” and approved by the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, a Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, umbrella organization, appearing in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish. (Heimishe means warm or friendly.) In addition to counseling against bright attire, Falk proscribed clothing that was tight or too revealing. “The width of the blouse or other top garment should be so that the shape of the upper body is not apparent,” he advised. Hips and thighs, meanwhile, should be “hidden and camouflaged by the skirt.”
Fierce debate exists among the various sects of Orthodox Judaism on the meaning of tzniut, or modesty. Rooted in Biblical prohibitions on nudity and cross-dressing, it applies to both men and women, but has usually been applied more rigorously toward women. Some interpret the concept as demanding that collar bones, legs, and arms be covered, while ultra-Orthodox communities, like those in Stamford Hill, add to these rules regulations on the color and cut of clothing.
Fink’s letter set off a furor in Britain’s Jewish community. Dina Brawer, the founder of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, criticized it in comments to the Times of London. Modesty, she said, “is about a mindset that values dignity and discretion. Tasteful clothing is only one manifestation of this value. Obsessing over women’s hemlines paradoxically undermines this value and smacks of male control.” Falk’s directives amount to a very stringent interpretation of tzniut, the religious code of modesty that bans dress seen as too profane or suggestive.
Stamford Hill rabbis have in the past run afoul of mainstream Jews for their attitudes on gender and modesty. Neighborhood clerics last year forbade women from driving as an offense to tzniut, Before that, religious leaders put up signs telling men and women to walk on separate sides of the street, posters that were later removed by the city government.
In New York, neighborhood modesty patrols have tested the boundaries of the law by attempting to police the clothing of women in public, enforce gender segregation in mass transit, and stamp out harmful cultural influences from the outside. In one memorable incident three years ago, the New York Times reported that clothing store owners in Williamsburg had been intimidated into not displaying female mannequins.
Back in Stamford Hill, another rabbi, Abraham Pinter, rushed to Fink’s defense of his colleague. “I don’t know what the big fuss is about … Rabbi Falk is not telling Dina Brawer or anyone else how to dress,” he huffed to the Jewish Chronicle. “For me, no women in the Haredi community feel that way. If she chooses to be a radical feminist, that’s her choice. Good for her.”
Radical feminists, get rid of the burning bras. Wearing a red blouse will suffice.
Contact Daniel J. Solomon at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DanielJSolomon
Daniel J. Solomon is the Assistant to the Editor/News Writer at the Forward. Originally from Queens, he attended Harvard as an undergraduate, where he wrote his senior thesis on French-Jewish intellectual history. He is excited to have returned to New York after his time in Massachusetts. Daniel’s passions include folk music, cycling, and pointed argument.